WHEN I was a very small child living in the depths of the North York Moors, we had a pet hedgehog who came or left the house as if he was a cat or dog. We fed him too – but I was too young to know what he ate –and he slept in a nest made from bits of unwanted sacking.
That nest was in the base of our radio – the wireless, as we called it. The wireless, an old name for the radio, was in a wooden cabinet about four feet high with the valves and so forth in the top of the cabinet, and the speaker near the bottom. The whole unit – about the size of a three-drawer foolscap filing cabinet - stood against a wall in the kitchen. The kitchen was also the living room boasting a coal fire with hot water tanks and the fireside oven built into the ironwork. The rear of the wireless cabinet was open but stood against the kitchen wall to hide and safeguard its contents. However, it also produced lots of warm space that became home to William, as we named the hedgehog.
As I was very tiny at that time, I have no idea how long William remained with us but he did seem very tame and quite at home in our house, although the garden was very close to the back door.
I think he spent a lot of time in the garden, but came into the house at bedtime, no doubt as dark chilliness was enveloping the countryside. Like most hedgehogs at this time of year, William had found a secure place to rest and sleep.
I cannot recollect him hibernating in the back of our wireless cabinet but I should perhaps add that this episode in my life occurred about 76 years ago, before I started school. I was probably four years old or thereabouts which might explain why I have no recollection of what eventually happened to William. I imagine that one day, perhaps in the night time, he left his sanctuary in our wireless cabinet and never returned. Perhaps he had found a lady friend?
On the other hand, he could have been caught by a predator, run-over and killed by a motor vehicle, fallen victim to cruel people who might have played football with him if he curled into a protective ball, or, of course, he might have found a friendly companion in the form of another hedgehog, or discovered a cosy shelter beneath a poultry house or in the loose strands of a haystack. I will never know his fate.
Whilst reading recently about the plight of hedgehogs in modern times, I can understand if young ones seek shelter in warm places at this time of year because quite often their natural habitat is ruined by tidy gardeners or zealous landowners, and they have nowhere to hibernate, nest or sleep.
Even their food supplies are at risk due to the various insect or vermin repellents currently in use, or of course a decline in small creatures such as slugs or woodlice that provide food for hungry hedgehogs. In killing or deterring pests that affect our crops and gardens, we may also be denying food to our hedgehog population.
Sadly, our modern gardens and farms often produce traps for hedgehogs, especially at night when they are at their most active. Deep holes with smooth walls, such as those in perhaps a cattle grid, will condemn a hedgehog to a slow death because it cannot climb out. Similarly, garden ponds or swimming pools with smooth sides present danger to wandering hedgehogs who cannot climb out. We have such a fish pond in our garden and I have created a shallow end with rocks and a wooden plank for creatures to use to either to enter the water, or to leave it. A variety of wild birds make good use of that plank and I am sure visiting hedgehogs will also take advantage of it.
Quite obviously, hedgehogs will be attracted to your garden if suitable food is provided, especially on a nightly basis. Despite the recommendation in some books, never leave out bread and milk. This is dangerous for hedgehogs. Clean water provides a suitable drink, and the recommended food can include minced meat, dog or cat food from tins, crushed biscuits for cats or dogs and even chopped hard-boiled eggs. If you provide food, a suitable shelter for it deters other visitors like foxes!
A sad fact is that our hedgehog numbers have been in a steep decline in the last decade or so. Many have been killed by motor vehicles whilst huge numbers have been destroyed by pesticides. This is sad as they are a useful and attractive asset to our countryside and so we should all do our best to conserve them.
And finally, I read recently an article by someone who described the hedgehog as a prickly-backed Hodgson. The writer had clearly misunderstood our North Yorkshire dialect because the local name for a hedgehog is a prickly-backed urchin, but “urchin” is pronounced as “otchen”. I believe a similar name is given to a sea urchin – a sea otchen.
Holly and ivy
WITH Christmas almost upon us, I think a number of homes in this region will display sprigs of holly, a plant that has a long association with this season. Ivy leaves might also be part of such a display and I am sure some people will ask – “Why do we display these plants at Christmas?”
Indeed, some of our readers might already have the holly and the ivy in their homes and will have displayed them simply because it is traditional to do so. And they may already have appeared in other buildings such as churches, public places and shops alongside another evergreen, the Christmas tree otherwise known as Norway Spruce.
The reality is that the holly and the ivy, as well as other evergreens, have long been associated with a fear of witches and other superstitious evils. It is therefore interesting to find a precise date when these plants became part of one of our greatest and most celebrated of Christian festivals, thanks to Pope Gregory the Great.
That date was AD 596 when Pope Gregory sent St Augustine to England to bring the Christian faith to the Anglo-Saxons. Some accounts stress that this was the date when Christmas came to these islands. But the Pope gave Augustine some good and lasting advice.
He ordered him not to destroy the pagan temples which were very well built, but only remove the idols, then build Christian altars in their place. In that way, reasoned Pope Gregory, the people will see that their shrines have not been destroyed and so they would be willing to come to those familiar places to learn about Christianity.
Gregory’s strategy succeeded. On Christmas Day a few years later, 10,000 converts were baptised and only a century later, Christmas was one of the three main Christian festivals in this country. The others were Easter and the Epiphany. Later, the Venerable Bede noted that the English people celebrated December 25 as both the beginning of their year but also as the birthday of Christ and a time for peace and concord.